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Special Report

Latino Catholics: How different?


The Census Bureau estimated the U.S. population at 270 million in 1998. Latinos made up 29 million of the total, or about 11 percent. The proportion of the Latino population that can be identified as Catholic is subject to considerable speculation. Some estimates have put the Latino Catholics at about 18 million, or 30 percent of the U.S. Catholic population of 62 million.

Kosmin and Lachman (1993) reported the Hispanic/Latino portion of the U.S. Catholic population at about 15 percent. Meanwhile, our three surveys have found Latinos to be 11 percent, 13 percent and 12 percent respectively of the U.S. Catholic population. Davidson et al. attempted to overcome the bias caused by the language problem during telephone interviews by including Spanish-speaking interviewers in their survey. That increased the results by about 2 percentage points to 15 percent. Whatever the current actual figures for Latino Catholics in the United States, Latinos are expected to constitute the largest ethnic group in the United States by 2015. Whether the percentage that is Catholic is 15 percent or 30 percent, Latinos will surely be a major force within the U.S. Roman Catholic church in the 21st century.

Writers have emphasized the many distinctive features Latinos currently bring to American society and to American Roman Catholicism. Ronaldo Cruz, executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Hispanic Affairs Secretariat, made the point in a recent NCR feature (Aug. 27) that many Catholic Hispanics have a spiritual life that exists largely outside the institutional church. This reality, says Cruz, calls for a re-evaluation of how the faith is transmitted, an understanding vital to holding this increasingly multicultural church together.

The overwhelming majority of Latinos are baptized Catholics, although current estimates suggest that between 30 percent and 35 percent are members of a Protestant denomination, especially Pentecostal churches.

In the previous two Gallup Surveys, the responses of Latinos revealed only small attitudinal differences from the rest of the Catholic population. While part of this lack of difference could well have been caused by the fact that our survey was restricted to Latinos conversant in English, part may also be due simply to the fact that on these issues there are small differences.

In 1999 Gallup drew an oversample for us, about 17 percent of the total of 875. Our analysis of the 1999 subsample of Latinos shows that there continues to be a bias in the sample in that it includes Latinos with above average formal education and income. Therefore, our sample of Latinos projects the general attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of English-conversant Catholic Latinos as they move toward becoming the largest identifiable ethnic group within U.S. Roman Catholicism.

Table 11 shows that important demographic differences continue to distinguish Latinos and Anglos. Latinos are significantly younger than the rest of the Catholic population, are less formally educated, less likely to be married and have lower incomes. These features are in part a result of their continuing high rates of immigration from the Caribbean islands, and Central and South America. Latinos also are much more likely to be first- and second-generation, and thus more subject to low paying, unskilled jobs and to many forms of prejudice and discrimination.

Regardless of the demographic differences, we found only a limited number of important differences between Latinos and Anglos in attitudes, beliefs and behavior. Table 11 includes all the items on which there were statistically reliable differences.

Latinos were significantly less likely than Anglos (54 percent to 70 percent) to be registered members of a parish. They were also less likely to attend Mass at least weekly (30 percent to 39 percent).

On the other hand, they were stronger in their commitment to Mary as the mother of God, perhaps reflecting their attachment to Our Lady of Guadalupe. And they were less likely than Anglos to agree that how a person lives is more important than whether he or she is a Catholic.

On the question of the locus of moral authority, they were significantly more likely than Anglos to stress conscience above church leaders and to distance themselves even further from church leaders on the morality of abortion and on non-marital sex. They were also significantly more supportive than Anglos of the idea of having women as priests.

The most striking difference between the Latinos and Anglos besides those already noted occurred with regard to the desire for more democratic decision-making. In all three cases (see Table 11, item 8), they were less supportive than were the Anglos, significantly so regarding decision-making at the diocesan and Vatican levels. These differences may simply reflect the fact that Latinos are less focused on the larger institutional structures of the church, as Ron Cruz indicated.

Our findings showing that Latinos distance themselves from church leaders at least as much as do other Catholics, coupled with their lower rate of weekly Mass attendance, their lower rate of parish membership, and their younger age, add substance to Cruz’s concern about the ability of the U.S. bishops to hold this rapidly growing ethnic group within the institutional church. Programs like RENEW 2000 in the Las Cruces diocese, ENCUENTRO 2000 in Los Angeles, and other efforts from Florida to California to encourage the growth of small Christian communities are hopeful signs.

National Catholic Reporter, October 29, 1999